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Published: October 17th 2014
International Airports are so comfortingly alike in their customs and procedures, always, reassuringly, involving a passport, a queue and, invariably, a bit of a panic and, with all these elements in place, I was welcomed into Accra.
Readying myself for the ‘wave of heat’ that I had been assured would hit me once I exited the terminal, I was surprised and, admittedly, a little disappointed by the muggy, sticky drizzle that darkened the unfamiliar sky; the pacifying sound of rain jarringly juxtaposed with unknown surroundings and the hum of an unfamiliar tongue.
“Madam Olivia!” I heard my name called from deep within the crowd. “Madam Olivia!” I heard again, the voice full of warmth and kindness. After having met just once before in the UK, Seth had become a true friend; a fellow teacher, in the autumn of his middle-age, with an unparalleled enthusiasm for life and all the people encompassed in it. After exchanging greetings and great bear hugs (on his part!) we were on the road, making the “four or five or six hour” (we were on ‘Ghana-time’) journey to Dutch Komenda: a small fishing community on the country’s south west coast.
Driving through Accra, the
country’s capital, there was clear evidence of both private and commercial wealth. The construction of new, lofty office blocks was under-way, highlighting the city’s growing business infrastructure, whilst a handful of imported Mercedes made the presence of wealth intimidatingly apparent.
“In Ghana, there is no middle class.” Seth solemnly observed, pointing out of the window at a lady and her tiny baby, stoically wandering along the side of the busy dual carriageway. The lady had no shoes on and here, unlike before, the presence of poverty was humblingly apparent.
The journey progressed laboriously and, in turn, the roads became increasingly pock-marked; the growing business infrastructure, decreasingly evident. As the urban landscape gave way to villages and fields, the redness of the soil grew richer, deeper, whilst the smell of humidity and vegetation drifted through the open car window, providing sultry affirmation of this disconcertingly tropical climate. I clutched the edge of my handbag, feeling for the reassuring bulge of my malaria tablets.
This was Africa, not Africa tailored to tourists’ needs, whims and perceptions of ‘real Africa’. This was real Africa. In these remote communities, corrugated iron provides shelter, whilst dried grass and mud give structure and, through this, villages are formed. Around large iron pots, rice was being mashed and plantain boiled, whilst vibrantly dressed women meandered gracefully across the sand, baskets of watermelon and yams poised delicately on their heads, or held assuredly out to passing cars and pedestrians. Edging my pale face out of the car window, I heard the distinctive hoot of children’s laughter.
“Hey bruni, how are you?” They called delightedly from the side of the road.
“You are a bruni, bruni means white person. They call all white people ‘bruni’.” Seth nodded solemnly before reaching across me and rebuking the children.
Whilst I contemplated my reaction to the ‘bruni’ incident (was I offended, indignant or charmed?), Seth turned the car, with a jerk, down a rutted lane, characteristically bumpy and un-tarmacked. With every creak of the car, the surface of the lane exhaled a cloud of red sand and I thought for a moment about winding up the window. One glance from Seth at my anxious face induced a frenzy of giggles and I was, just for a moment, reassured.
My arrival into Dutch Komenda and the welcome I received from the community was both unexpected and unforgettable. I felt humbled by the banners that greeted me and immensely moved by the kind words and embraces. I had this feeling that I was experiencing something truly special, that this was one of those moments that affords perspective and reflection, whilst generating unpleasant resentment for the 9-to-5.
I was in Ghana as part of a Professional Development course. The premise was that, as a teacher, I could assist in Dutch Komenda’s school, whilst gaining new ideas that I could incorporate into my own practice. As I shook hands with the chief of the village, I suddenly felt very far removed from the world of spreadsheets and target setting.
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